Marty Thau, who discovered and managed the careers of the New York Dolls and Suicide, among many others, passed away in Petersburg, VA, at the age of 75 last Thursday, after complications from renal failure.
New York City native Thau, the self-declared “chairman” of the groundbreaking ’70s indie label Red Star Records, was born on December 7, 1938. He began his industry career at Billboard, answering a classified ad for an executive advertising trainee in the New York Times after taking communication arts and business management courses at NYU. His cousin was married to Tony Orlando, whom he managed for a while before getting hired by newly named Cameo-Parkway vice president/general manager Neil Bogart at the Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway Records as a promotion executive, where he worked such records as Question Mark & the Mysterians’ “96 Tears,” as well as records by Bob Seger, Donny Hathaway and the Ohio Express. When that label was sold to Allen Klein in 1968, Thau joined Bogart at Buddah Records, where his hits included bubble-gum records by the Ohio Express and 1910 Fruitgum Company as well as the Brooklyn Bridge, The Rapperz, the Isley Brothers, Melanie and Edwin Hawkins Singers.
After resigning from Buddah, he was one of three partners in Inherit Productions, a management/ production/publishing company that represented Van Morrison, John Cale and Miriam Makeba, among others. He then spent six months as head of A&R at Paramount Records under president Tony Martell. Stumbling one night into the downtown New York Mercer Arts Center, he caught a performance by the New York Dolls, which immediately changed his life. Wrote Thau in his unpublished memoir Red Star Chronicles:
“We knew we were witnessing a performance of real rock ‘n’ roll, presented in a language only teens would relate to and understand and their elders would passionately despise. I had never seen or heard anything like this bunch of roguish scoundrels, who made most everyone else in the world’s rock ‘n’ roll spotlight look tame.”
Thau committed everything to managing the band, enlisting William Morris Agency bookers Steve Leber and David Krebs as partners, and signing the Dolls for two albums at Mercury Records. He accompanied the group on a tour of the U.K. in October, 1972 where drummer Billy Murcia tragically choked on his own vomit after a drug OD in a London apartment.
At the height of the punk scene in New York, Thau launched his indie Red Star Records in 1976, signing notorious local duo Suicide, co-producing their groundbreaking debut album with Craig Leon. The label, which was distributed for a time by Bronze U.K., also included Boston’s The Real Kids, Queens’ the Fleshtones, violin player Walter Steding, noise duo Red Transistor and, later on, Richard Hell. A memorable Suicide tour of Britain, where they opened for the likes of Elvis Costello and The Clash, is now considered a historic event, including a riot at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels on June 16, 1978, captured on a cassette tape recording by A&R exec Howard Thompson. Thau was also an early supporter of such bands as the Ramones, Blondie, and the Heartbreakers, offering them guidance, and producing early demos of the bands.
In a 1982 guest commentary in Billboard, Thau argued that the music industry was in need of a “well need transfusion” from a new wave of independent labels and artists. “The new music which is threatening to explode at this particularly volatile moment is a reaction to the formatted, stultifying and narrow view of people and artists who have lost their sense of excitement… to say the least.”
After moving to Virginia to be close to his daughter Leslie and his two grandchildren, Thau continued to be a fierce promoter of his rock and roll ethos, as he worked on more musical projects and his autobiography, which was in the hands of several publishers. In his final days, he got to see Bruce Springsteen cover Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” for his latest album “High Hopes,” and see him immortalized by The Fleshtones’ “Remember the Ramones,” who give him a name-check, “drinking Remy with Marty Thau.”
Writes Thau in the introduction to his autobiography:
Rejection is my middle name. I’ve been called almost every complimentary or contentious name in the book — from the indefatigable Chairman of Punk Music by those who held me in high regard, to the Pope of New York Rock ‘n’ Roll by France’s prominent Rock & Folk Magazine, to a self-serving son-of-a-bitch by a handful of disgruntled recording artists under contract to my Red Star label (despite indisputable evidence to the contrary), and a no-talent Jew bastard by some of the more emotionally disturbed fascist types who populated the world of old-school punk. Despite the differing perceptions of my character and agenda, I was wise enough to know that all you can do in life is be who you are. Some will love you for yourself, but most will love you for what you can do for them.